Engineers use hot water to drill two kilometre hole in Antarctic ice

As part of a bid to improve our understanding of future sea-level rises, a group of scientists and engineers led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have used hot water to drill a two-kilometre hole through the ice sheet in West Antarctica.

The BEAMISH team has drilled over two kilometres to the base of the Rutford Ice Stream in West Antarctica. Image: BAS

The so-called BEAMISH project (Basal conditions on Rutford Ice Stream: Bed Access, Monitoring and Ice Sheet History) has been 20 years in the planning and was attempted in 2004 without success.

The 11-person team, which includes experts from the Universities of Swansea, UCL, Bristol and Aberystwyth, and NASA-JPL - broke through to the sediment 2152 metres below the surface on Tuesday 8 January after a 63-hour long drilling operation.

The drilling system used by BAS – which is the world leader in hot water drilling technology - used a petrol-fuelled generator and water-heaters powered by aviation fuel to heat the drill water to around 90 °C. High-pressure pumps were then used to push the hot water down the drill hose. A string of instruments was then fed through the borehole which will record water pressure, ice temperature and deformation within the ice around it.

Dr Keith Makinson, a physical oceanographer at BAS, said that the study will improve understanding and predictions of future sea-level rises:  “We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica’s glaciers,” he said. “What we’re trying to understand is how slippery the sediment underneath these glaciers is, and therefore how quickly they might flow off the continent into the sea. This will help us determine future sea level rise from West Antarctica with more certainty.”

The team has been working at the BEAMISH camp in West Antarctica since November 2018. Image: BAS

Commenting on the success of the drilling operation, lead scientist on the project Dr Andy Smith, also from BAS, said: “I have waited for this moment for a long time and am delighted that we’ve finally achieved our goal. There are gaps in our knowledge of what’s happening in West Antarctica and by studying the area where the ice sits on soft sediment we can understand better how this region may change in the future and contribute to global sea-level rise."

The team has now drilled two holes on the Rutford Ice Stream and plans to be working on the ice until mid-February 2018. Further work will continue at a second site a few kilometres away.